Young could finish as high as second in the voting and become only the second purely defensive lineman to end up as runner-up.
As Chase Young prepared for his junior season at Ohio State, he laid out some goals.
One involved his sack total.
He wanted to finish with 15 sacks. Perhaps without coincidence, it was one more than the Ohio State record held by Vernon Gholston for more than a decade.
“I guess I got it,” Young said.
Young hit the mark with ease. Once he played in his ninth game for the Buckeyes, a victory last month over Penn State, his total had reached 16.5, overtaking Gholston.
It was such a statistical feat that Young impressed voters for the Heisman Trophy, an honor for college football’s top player but one that often goes to quarterbacks. No purely defensive player has ever won, but he was invited to the presentation ceremony Saturday as a finalist.
Young will join three quarterbacks in New York as the first defensive lineman to attend in a decade and only the fourth since invitations were extended to finalists in 1982. It is rare territory, even as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow stands as the heavy favorite.
But without a clear-cut challenger, Young could finish as high as second in the voting and become only the second purely defensive lineman to end up as runner-up. He will need to fend off the other finalists — his teammate, quarterback Justin Fields, and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts — to join Pittsburgh linebacker Hugh Green, who was second behind South Carolina running back George Rogers in 1980.
Young was never eager to promote himself for the Heisman. Days after ballots were released to voters last week, Young offered a modest stance.
“The only thing that would allow me to go to the Heisman is my play,” he said. “I feel like, if I talk about it, then it wouldn't really mean too much. Because it's based off what I did on the field. So if I go out and have a good game, it'll help. But if I go out and don’t have a good game, all the talking I did really didn't say anything because I didn't do it on the field. I feel it's just not about talking; it’s all about ball.”
The odds of Young reaching New York were steep beyond his status as a defender. Last month, he was suspended for two games after it was determined that he took a loan from a family friend in violation of NCAA rules. The absence cost him opportunities to add to his statistical totals against Maryland and Rutgers, two of the Big Ten’s most downtrodden programs.
Not since Oregon running back LaMichael James in 2010 had a finalist faced a suspension during the season.
Young knew his opportunities were limited in comparison with a quarterback’s.
“He has the ball every play,” Young said in reference to the quarterback position. “I feel like he just has the most chances to make plays, because he always gets the ball. And on defense, you can chip a guy, double a guy and take him out of the game so if he doesn’t have any sacks, there is nothing he can do.”
But Young performed well enough in some of the Buckeyes’ highest-profile matchups, tying an Ohio State record with four sacks against Wisconsin in October and getting three against Penn State.
Last season, Young had 9.5 sacks, but he was hobbled by two sprained ankles. With better health this season, his performance took off, and he could end up doubling that 2018 total if he records multiple sacks during the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff run.
In an interview this fall, his father, Greg, recalled seeing a lot of swelling and discoloration in his son’s ankles last season.
“He would get treatment and everything, and it wasn't as bad as it looked,” Greg said. “I was like, ‘Can you run on it?’ He’s like, ‘I’m running, I’m running all week, I’m fine.’ He said just certain cuts, ‘I can’t bend like I need to bend. And I can't pursue as fast as I want to pursue. But I can play.’”
Young never had surgery on the ankles after last season. He just needed rest.
“Between games, five days, he couldn't get proper rest,” Greg said.
As Young discussed the Heisman last week, he was proud of his performance and his place in the race, even though he went only so far to trumpet his candidacy amid a playoff pursuit.
“It definitely means a lot,” Young said. “As a player growing up, striving to be the best, it feels good to be recognized. I’m not going to say it doesn’t, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because we got more games to play.”